Election in the Hebrew Bible

Much of the Hebrew Bible speaks against the idea that the nations will convert to Israel’s religion and it is rare to find a passage that speaks of a complete dissolution of all distinctions between Abraham’s family and the other nations of the world.

See Also: Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election (Wipf and Stock, 2016).

By Joel S. Kaminsky
Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies
Chair, Religion Department
Smith College
August 2019

Election within the Hebrew Bible is the notion that God favors some individuals and groups over others, an idea that finds fullest expression in the affirmation that Israel is God’s chosen people. Certain New Testament texts, like the Gospel of John and Revelation, at times appear to equate those chosen by God with those who will obtain ultimate salvation, a notion that becomes amplified within those forms of Protestantism influenced by Calvin’s theology of double predestination. Yet, within much of the biblical tradition discussed below, the idea of election is neither dualistic nor directly linked with one’s salvation or damnation.

Divine Favor in Genesis

The theme of divine favoritism first appears in Genesis 4 in the Cain and Abel narrative and is developed further in the later more elaborate sibling stories of Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis 16-22), and Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25-33)—reaching its zenith in the Joseph novella (Genesis 37-50). In all of these stories, a younger sibling is favored by God over the elder brother or brothers, a motif that recurs throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Ephraim, Moses, Samuel, David, and Solomon). God’s choices are rarely justified within the text, and they seem to run counter to social convention as demonstrated by the recurrent divine preference for the younger or youngest child over his elder sibling(s). On a theological level, this motif highlights God’s power, for the biblical God often subverts societal arrangements and expectations. On a socio-historical level, the prominence of this theme may reflect Israel’s self-perception in relation to its older, dominant neighbors, Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Election has some counterintuitive features within Genesis. In these narratives of sibling rivalry, being “non-chosen” does not mean that one is destined for peril or divine punishment. In several instances, the non-favored brothers are neither hated by God nor denied blessings of their own. The language in Genesis 17 and 21, for example, reveals that even though Ishmael is outside of the Abrahamic covenant (17:19, 21), he receives many of the blessings God promised to Abraham’s descendants. Much the same can be said of Esau (Genesis 33, 36).

Being chosen, on the other hand, is not a purely positive experience. Chosenness often brings mortal danger in its wake. Thus Cain murders Abel (Genesis 4); Isaac is nearly sacrificed by Abraham (Genesis 22); Esau wanted to murder Jacob (Gen 27:41-45); and Joseph is nearly killed by his brothers (Genesis 37). This pattern of the endangerment of the chosen one that usually precedes his eventual exaltation is central to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as indicated by the Exodus and Gospel narratives. 

Interestingly, even among those divinely favored, some (e.g., Joseph who rises to great power in Egypt when he successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams) are more favored than others. Distinctions exist even among God’s one chosen people as exhibited elsewhere with the descendants of David and Aaron.

Finally, the chosen may be morally flawed characters. While chosenness is often linked to divine service, the failure to live up to the highest ideals expected of the chosen rarely results in forfeiture of their election. For example, Jacob, Israel’s eponymous ancestor, obtains both the inheritance and the blessing intended for his brother Esau in morally problematic ways, but he retains them and continues to benefit from God’s favor. On the other hand, God’s treatment of King Saul in the wake of his disobedience may imply he indeed lost the divine favor he once possessed.

God’s Promises  

Ideas such as promise, covenant, and holiness are closely bound up with chosenness. Promise is a framing device within the patriarchal stories. Thus, God’s promises to Abraham first mentioned in Gen 12:1-3, 7 initiate Abraham’s and his descendants’ special relationship to God.  Elements of these promises echo like a refrain throughout Genesis (Gen 15:4-5, 16-21; 17:20; 22:15-19; 24:60; 27:28-29; 28:3-4, 13-15; 35:9-12; 48:15-16). They are composed of at least three elements, the promise of progeny, of blessing, and of land. Many of these promised blessings are articulated by God, but several are on the lips of various human beings (Gen 24:60; 27:28-29; 28:3-4).

These promise texts articulate Israel’s self-understanding of her divine election. Genesis 1-11 represents God’s failed attempt to create a working relationship between humans, nature, and himself. In the wake of this failure, God moves from a plan in which he demands equal obedience from all humans to a two-tiered plan in which most people are held to a minimal religio-moral standard (which later Judaism conceives of as the seven Noahide commandments), and one man’s extended family is chosen to maintain a higher standard of religious behavior. As Genesis 12:1-3 makes clear, Abraham’s, and thus Israel’s, election is closely bound-up with God’s larger plan to bring blessing to the whole world even while God’s purposes in choosing Abraham and his descendants are not exhausted by this linkage.

Great scholarly attention has been lavished on this short passage, and one’s understanding of this text inevitably affects one’s view of how the Hebrew Bible balances the particular and the universal. In fact, several important Christian critics have read this passage as undergirding the “instrumental” aspect of Israel’s election. They do so by arguing that God’s special relationship to Abraham, and thus to the people of Israel as a whole, is primarily for the sake of the eventual universal salvation of all the Gentiles. For example, in his influential essay “The Kerygma of the Yahwist,” Hans Walter Wolff puts tremendous weight on Genesis 12:1-3, particularly on the final phrase in 3b translated by the NRSV as “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The attempt to read this text in instrumental and particularly missional terms recurs regularly among Christian exegetes.

Frequently, these types of Christians readings, which stress the instrumental and missional aspects of election, result in a problematic supersessionism. Yet, Walter Moberly, a Christian scholar, has argued persuasively that Genesis 12:1-3 is primarily directed to Abraham as a message of assurance rather than addressed to those others with whom Abraham and his children will interact. The idea that all the families of the earth will somehow obtain blessing through their relationship to Abraham and his descendants is clearly of great theological importance. But the blessing that the other nations of the world experience might be better conceived as a consequence that flows from God’s special election of Abraham and his select descendants, (an interpretation supported by Genesis 18:18 and 48:20), rather than something that explains the purpose of Israel’s election.

Even if one reads Genesis 12:3 with Wolff as an explanation for Abraham’s election, how this would work is never fully articulated within the Hebrew Bible. In any case, much of the Hebrew Bible speaks against the idea that the nations will convert to Israel’s religion and it is rare to find a passage that speaks of a complete dissolution of all distinctions between Abraham’s family and the other nations of the world. Thus, the word mission obscures rather than illuminates many of the texts that do emphasize the instrumental dimensions of election. It is useful to keep in mind that even the instrumental aspects of Genesis 12 and other passages such as Genesis 18 or Exodus 19 reflect the people of Israel’s attempts to understand the fuller meaning of their chosen status. Yet, within the Bible, God never discloses the total meaning of his unique relationship to Israel, and as we note later in this essay, several seminal passages ground this relationship in the mystery of God’s special love for the patriarchs and their later descendants, the nation of Israel.

The Anti-Elect and the Non-Elect

An important feature of Israel’s election theology is that it distinguishes between three categories of people, rather than two: the elect (Israel) are contrasted with both the anti-elect and the non-elect. The “anti-elect” are the few groups deemed to be actual enemies of God and Israel, and whom Israel is commanded to annihilate (e.g., the Canaanite nations). These commandments pose serious theological problems for contemporary interpreters even if they are intended to be metaphors for Israel’s total obedience to God rather than reflections of actual history.

The “non-elect,” however, include the vast majority of foreign individuals and nations, and they play an important and often positive role in God’s plans for the world. While the non-elect are not chosen, they are also not condemned like the anti-elect. Israel was to work out her destiny in relation to the non-elect, even if in religious separation from them. In fact, the Hebrew Bible contains one of the most open postures toward “the Other” found in any ancient text. Many non-Israelite figures are treated with great respect, including the pharaoh who rules during Joseph’s lifetime; the daughter of the succeeding pharaoh, who saves Moses’ life (Exod 2:5–10); Job, the wise and righteous man from the East; and Cyrus, King of Persia, who authorizes the return of the exiled Judeans to their land (Isaiah 45:1–4; 2 Chron 36:22–23). Additionally, some non-elect individuals or groups are closely attached to or even merged with Israel. Ruth the Moabitess becomes King David’s great grandmother while Jethro the Midianite is Moses’ father-in-law (Exod 2:16–22; 18:1–12).

In addition to the positive characterization of non-elect figures, the Hebrew Bible sometimes compares them favorably to members of the elect. These portrayals call into question the widespread assumption that Israel’s sense of its own election inherently led Israelites to express contempt for all non-Israelites. Indeed, a number of texts appear to challenge Israel to recognize that the non-elect often have much to teach the elect about how one should act in the world and serve God. Thus, Naaman the Aramean general is set against Gehazi, Elisha’s greedy and disobedient servant (2 Kings 5). Uriah the Hittite is a moral paragon even when intoxicated, while King David resorts to having him killed in battle in order to protect his illicit affair with Uriah’s wife (2 Samuel 11).  Through these contrasts, the narrators of the Hebrew Bible call into question both the idea that one can enjoy the status of the elect without fulfilling the chosen’s responsibilities and the notion that the non-elect cannot act in accord with God’s will.


Israel as a “Light to the Nations”

2nd and 3rd Isaiah (40-55, 56-66), two related but likely distinct collections of exilic and post-exilic oracles appended to the Isaiah scroll, include some of the most strikingly beautiful and powerful images of God’s love for his chosen people found within the Hebrew Bible. These passages also explore the implications God’s election of Israel might have for the other nations of the world. Certain expressions within this corpus such as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6) have received immense attention because Christians have understood them as authorizing missionary efforts to bring God’s word to the whole world (Acts 13:46-47). However, it is worth enquiring whether 2nd and 3rd Isaiah understood Israel’s duty in that same way.   

These expressions are ambiguous with regard to both language and interpretation. Do these phrases indicate Israel’s mission to the Gentile nations, or are they describing God’s relationship with Israel?  Since the larger thrust of 2nd Isaiah focuses on the return of the exiled Judeans to Zion, the expression “a light to the nations” may be describing a beacon sent out to Israelites in the far corners of the earth, signaling that the exile has now ended and guiding the returnees home. If so, then the addressee in this passage may be the faithful remnant, the elect-of-the-elect who help lead the restoration of the Israelite nation. Even if these expressions were addressed to the nations of the world, it is far from certain that they should be read in a missionary way. Perhaps God is doing something with all or part of Israel that is supposed to be witnessed by the now dazzled nations. Or it may be that the nations recognize Israel’s God as the one true God, but this does not necessarily connote conversion and the inclusion of other groups into the chosen people. 

The Chosen Land

Not only are certain individuals, families, tribes, and nations at times specially favored but so are particular localities. The most obvious instance is God’s special affection for the land that God bequeaths to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob (Gen 12:7; 26:4; 35:12) a land that God “looks after” and that God’s eyes “are always on” (Deut 11:12). Within this land, Jerusalem, which is conceived as the sacred center, also receives special divine favor (Psalm 78:67-69, Psalm 122). And within Jerusalem itself, the temple precincts are often spoken of with election terminology (Psalms 46 and 48). While there are many different ways the land of Israel is viewed in various Hebrew Bible texts, there is no denying that biblical religion has a very strong locative dimension and that the theology of the chosen people is closely intertwined with the theology of the chosen land. Broadly speaking, obedience to God’s covenantal norms leads to a long and blessed life in the land of Israel in which God dwells among the Israelites (Lev 26:3-13), while disobedience inevitably results in exile, suffering, early death, and alienation from God (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

Although the exilic experience left a huge imprint on the Jewish scriptures, major theological streams within the Hebrew Bible continue to affirm that God’s chosen people can only achieve their destiny and reach their full potential when living in the land of Israel and observing the Torah’s laws. In fact, a number of the Torah’s laws, such as those surrounding the sabbatical and jubilee years, are tied directly to life in the land of Israel. Furthermore, the temple and its sacrificial cult, which occupy a major place in the biblical imagination, can only function when Israel is securely ensconced in the promised land. Yet, Israel’s ability to occupy and possess the land is ultimately tied to creating and maintaining a society in which the ritual and ethical concerns that pervade the Torah and the Prophets are upheld. In Jeremiah, one finds an extended critique of the melding of aspects of Zion theology that conceived of God’s choice to dwell in the Jerusalem temple with the davidic royal theology that emphasized God’s eternal choice of David and his descendants to occupy the throne. The seemingly unconditional nature of the two theological streams of thought gave the people in Jeremiah’s day a false sense that they could act as they wished and still be secure in the land. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile reshaped ancient Israelite theology so that God’s promise that Israel should dwell in the land was conceived as continuing to endure, but Israel’s actual ability to maintain its hold on the land became more explicitly contingent on the people acting in accord with God’s commandments (Deut 4:25-31; 30:1-10).

Election in the New Testament and Early Rabbinic Judaism

While major streams of New Testament thinking broadened the elect group to include those Gentiles who came to believe in Jesus as the Christ, this does not signify a rejection of the biblical view of election and its implied exclusivism. Early Christians did not understand themselves as universalists who accepted everyone because of their common descent from Adam, but rather as particularists who found a new way to link believing Gentiles to Abraham and through him to God’s elect people (Rom 4:16-18, 22-24).

However, there are substantial differences between the New Testament’s understanding of election and that found in rabbinic Judaism. The two traditions diverge on a number of central theological issues including: missionary outreach, the fate of those not elected, the roles played by divine and human actions respectively, and the acceptability of God’s arbitrariness. 

In certain inverse ways, each of the two traditions remains more consistent with the Hebrew Bible’s theology in some areas and more innovative in others. For example, in much of the Hebrew Bible the motivation for God’s special favor toward certain individuals and groups remains shrouded in mystery. New Testament authors such as Paul continue to stress this dimension of chosenness (Romans 9-11). In contrast, a number of rabbinic texts attempt to construct rationales for God’s mysterious choice of Israel (Mek. on Exodus 20:2) or of the Patriarchs (e.g., Abraham, Gen. Rab. 38:13) by explaining how they earned God’s favor.

On the other hand, rabbinic Judaism establishes the Noahide laws, which provide a code of behavior for the non-elect. While the Jewish people were required to oberve all 613 commandments the rabbis find in the Torah, the rest of humanity was bound by many fewer divine obligations. The exact number varies in different sources, but one commonly finds references to seven basic commandments Gentiles must observe, including: setting up proper courts, not murdering, not stealing, not committing idolatry, not committing adultery, and so on. These Noahide laws may stand behind the compromise struck in Acts 15:20 concerning the limited number of obligations that Gentile followers of Jesus would be required to observe. It is important to note that the rabbinic Noahide laws imply that non-Jewish individuals may live in righteous accordance with God’s expectations for larger humanity, as is suggested often within the Hebrew Bible. In contrast, the call within New Testament texts to missionize the Gentiles (Matt 28:19; Mk 16:15-16; Lk 24:44-49), and the conception of the elect as the saved, standing against the damned (John 3:18; Rev 7:4; 14:1, 3) are ideas that occur rarely if at all within the Hebrew Bible.

The communal claim to elect status is central to the theology of both Judaism and Christianity. This should not be surprising since election plays a very large role within foundational texts of both traditions. After all, the Hebrew Bible is not only the Jewish Bible but was also the primary corpus of scripture used by the earliest followers of Jesus. It has continued to function as sacred scripture for most Christians throughout history. Furthermore, both Judaism and Christianity become theologically impoverished  when either community surrenders its unique claim to be God’s chosen people. While the idea of chosenness may seem arbitrary and unfair, it discloses God’s close and gracious relationship towards humanity as a whole, as well as the profoundly personal and relational character of the biblical God.



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Article Comments

Submitted by Daniel A Williams on Mon, 01/17/2022 - 08:30


This is well done and coincides with much of my research. Have you written more on election, insider, outsider, otherness etc.?

Dan Williams

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